Original? Hardly: Jupiter Ascending, Victorian Flop

Jupiter Ascending answers the question I bet you never thought to ask: What would Victorian space opera look like? And no, I’m not talking steampunk Victorian scifi, although an inordinate amount of the Wachowskis’ ridiculous budget was clearly spent on contraptions invoking such aesthetics at one juncture. Rather, what would an epic science-fantasy adventure look like if it were written by a Victorian–and not a very good writer at that?

At its core, the film tells the story of a young woman (Mila Kunis) of low beginnings, scrubbing toilets and enduring familial indignities, but coveting the material wealth of the people whose houses she cleans. Then–surprise!–she’s a space princess who literally owns the planet, and after this position is rigorously formalized, it becomes critical which contracts (marriage or otherwise) she chooses to sign. Rest assured, though: None of this aristocracy bullshit sticks. Instead, Jupiter Jones learns that no amount of wealth matters as much as love, which in this case is emphatically tied to the idea that one person calling you “your majesty” should be enough.

Oh, and there are some explode-y fight scenes and space ships and stuff.

I almost don’t know where to begin in describing how much Jupiter Ascending fails to excite. If it was intended as a series of situations in which the female lead’s biggest decision is whether or not to sign various contracts presented by predatory aristocrats, that’s a huge plot development issue right there, not to mention a choice that immediately shuts women out of the action. (Seriously: None of the female characters has a significant action role in this space epic; even the female bounty hunter centrally hangs about on her weaponized bike and reassures a male bounty hunter that she trusts him, while the female head of what we’re supposed to read as the space police embodies justice at large: present, but unable to assist where it counts.)

Similarly, if the Wachowskis expected us to worry that Caine Wise (Channing Tatum) might not stop these contract signings in time, thus foiling the schemes of aristocratic siblings Kalique (Tuppence Middleton), Titus (Douglas Booth), and Balem (Eddie Redmayne), they did themselves no favours with action sequences that combine the worst of Lucas and Jackson–Lucas, in acrobatic displays that play out so effortlessly no sense of genuine risk emerges; and Jackson, in running-through-collapsing-structures-and-under-falling-debris sequences amplified to the point of absurdity.

A whip-crack script might have helped some of these issues–something lean and replete with witty dialogue that effectively conveys, say, the two main characters falling in love. Instead we also get bizarre, halted speeches (including backstories we’re just supposed to care about because they’ve been plainly stated) that seem half the fault of the screenwriters and half the fault of the sleepwalking actors. Granted, Redmayne plays his heart out as a Slytherin-wannabe, which is at least amusing, but otherwise, there’s more range of expression in the CGI’d winged lizard-soldiers.

Thematically, too, the film reaches for some depressingly blatant motifs. It turns out Jupiter’s space family is ancient, for instance, and the secret to their immortality–spoiler!–has something to do with “harvesting” planets. But where do we first hear that word? Why, right near the beginning, when Jupiter is pressured by her cousin into having her eggs “harvested” to make a lump sum of which she knows she’ll receive exactly 1/3 (a division also not compellingly explained). For “reasons” it seems important for her to have this experience–perhaps so that later we can see her react differently when forced to choose between current family and future generations (… of all human life on Earth)?–but even the “right” choice takes a while to dawn on her. So… character progression? … Sort of?

Regardless, the ultimate transformation is that Jupiter learns to appreciate her family more–even the wannabe-egg-stealing cousin–and for being a good little Angel of the House, Jupiter gets to fly around on her own time in the end. If you want a message, this film’s is essentially, “Who cares if you’re cleaning toilets if you’ve got a man who treats you like royalty at the end of the day?” Well, a man and gravity boots. And wings. Or something.

Suffice it to say, the Victorians themselves couldn’t have written a more staid script–right down to two men designed for combat brutalities getting squicked by the application of a sanitary napkin to staunch a flesh wound–for what was supposed to be a high-flying, free-wheeling, epic space fantasy. But I’ll say this much (for the Victorians, not the Wachowskis): There’s a fair chance the former might at least have developed a more entertaining film.

Hell, I’d even settle for a Regency-era novelist like Jane Austen being given a shot at the dialogue. I mean, if you’re going to blow $175 million on a film essentially about how a woman’s most important choices involve intergalactic contract law, you might as well allocate some of that budget to raising the dead. (Also a Regency-era invention, I might add: Thank you, Mary Shelley! It’s a crying shame how far the genre sometimes hasn’t come.)

Telling Stories: Fiction, Memoir, and the General Weirdness of Writing the World

In one of the books I’m currently reading, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s The Rabbit Back Literature Society, a party finds eager, middling writers thronging about nine members of an elect group on the verge of adding its first new member in thirty years. Of this elect group the most famous protégé is one Martti Winter, who has just made a journalist feel foolish for asking if Winter drew from personal experiences in a novel with a cross-dressing protagonist. As Winter replies,

“Even the best cook can’t make chicken soup out of his own feet. There aren’t so terribly many ingredients in anyone’s life, less meat than there is on a sparrow. The average person could come up with at most two good novels. Many who think very highly of themselves can’t manage more than a couple of anecdotes. … By the time you get to the third novel you’re going to have to throw in a few pinches of someone else’s life.”

A woman then approaches, attempting banter where the journalist’s tactics failed:

“Tell me, am I in any danger of being used if I come too close, oh great and terrifying author?”

“Go ahead and try,” Winter said, somewhat wearily. “Open up to me. Reveal something interesting about yourself, and I’ll use it when I need it. If I need it. Altered for my own purposes.”

“How will you alter me?”

“Well… I might turn those curls of yours black or make you fatter or thinner by ten kilo or so, whatever comes to me. and maybe, just maybe, I’ll change one of yours eyes, perhaps the left one, into a glass eye.”

The woman’s mouth dropped open. “Huh?”

Winter smiled.

“Or I might give you a wooden leg, or some kind of disease. How does syphilitic brain damage sound? Or maybe I’ll have you broken in two in an auto accident.”

The woman smiled, frightened. “You’ll eat me alive.”

She grabbed a companion by the arm and started lisping like a little girl. “Oh, won’t you please be a nice man-eating lion and let me go if I tell you a juicy story about my friend here?”

Winter looked at her apologetically. “I’m sorry, but I don’t bargain with my material.”

I was put in mind of this scene when reading two pieces this week on the tenuous relationship between fiction, memoir, and the real people who often inspire an author’s work. In The New Statesman, Oliver Farry asks nuanced questions under the abysmal headline: “Should you be wary of writers you know? You might be providing them with free material.” In particular, Farry writes:

Plenty of things keep us in check, not least libel laws, or professional constraints – writers as varied as John Le Carré, Flann O’Brien and Yasmina Khadra have adopted pseudonyms so as to keep their jobs – but probably the most pervasive source of self-censorship is your relationship with people you know. Of course, wilfully alienating people on a regular basis is neither advisable nor laudable but the exigencies of enclosed social circles often mean harsh truths remain unsaid and back-scratching thrives.

Few people want to jeopardise their careers by saying unkind things about certain figures or institutions. But what about those people who don’t necessarily wield any influence but whom you don’t want to upset? I’m thinking of friends, family and other acquaintances. John Fowles was so intimidated by what his parents might think of what he wrote that he felt he needed them to die before he could really get started. Geoff Dyer’s work is littered with personal details that many people would shudder at their parents knowing but he says that his never showed any interest in reading his books. Others have been less compunctious – Pat Conroy’s novel The Great Santini was such a thinly-veiled portrayal of his tyrannical military father that Conroy’s mother presented it to the judge at her divorce proceedings, saying, “everything you need is in there”.

Farry’s list of examples goes on, but it could have gone on much longer–so much does the history of letters owe to people writing about failed relationships, failed childhoods, failed efforts of so many other stripes when other active participants therein still endure. Meanwhile, in the L.A. Times, David Ulin responds by asking, “What do writers owe their subjects?” He goes on to say:

Do we have the right to tell their stories at all? Such complications become even more vivid when we consider them through the lens of privilege: the privilege of the storyteller to control or shape the narrative.

“The act of writing about another person,” the memoirist and essayist Marion Winik has written, “occurs not just in the world of literature but in real life. It cannot help but change your relationship, and this should be the first thing you think about.”

At the same time, as Abigail Thomas puts it in her memoir Three Dog Life: “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong? Wasn’t my memory of a memory also real?”

The questions Thomas is asking sit at the heart of not just literature but also living, the problem of perception, meaning, of (to use a word I don’t believe in) truth. How can we ever see anything except from our own perspective? And if that’s the case, isn’t it the perspective that ultimately counts?

All writing is autobiographical, in other words, even when it aspires to be, or insists on being labeled, something else.

Here, though, I think Ulin incorrectly applies the word “autobiographical” as a stand-in for something else, something incredibly significant to the work of writers (in specific) and human beings (in general). To arrive at what I mean, though, a little “real” autobiography seems to be in order.

One Day You’ll Regret How Mean You’ve Been to Me

These days I shudder at the thought of writing memoir, but I didn’t always, and I still encourage friends who’ve chosen memoir as their form to pursue that which feels right to them. Form must always follow function, I strongly believe–and as a younger person, memoir seemed incredibly functional to me. Indeed, my earliest memory of wanting to write a “tell-all” of my life is set in middle school–either grade seven or eight, since we didn’t have grade six at Kane M.S. I don’t remember the time of year, save that I’d just had a pretty rotten day made worse by wandering to the steep hill at the back of the school’s property and slipping in the muddy grass.

I remember starting work on my memoir after somewhat sorting out the mess I’d made of my pants. The book would begin with the bitter injustices faced at the hands of bullies before I entered the gifted program, and then the bitter injustices I faced after, followed by the real knife-twist in the wound: the fact that middle school was no better than elementary. After, I’d get into all the family stuff none of my classmates knew I’d been facing all throughout, and oh, how they’d feel terrible then, for having added so much pain to an already difficult life!

Or, wait–no: I’d start with an anecdote from the first day of grade five. That’s what a good book needed, right? A hook? So I’d start by describing my first day on the school bus where I’d been miserably bullied every day the year before–me, this strange, brash, emotional child who only occasionally had her long hair brushed and who carried a bright yellow plastic lunch box that was just asking to get passed around and occasionally emptied while a truly sadistic bus driver joined in on the mockery.

I’d start by describing the way I’d stood up and apologized on the bus that first day of grade five, for being so strange and ridiculous and clearly a deserving target of abuse at the hands of the fourth to eighth graders, before asking if maybe this year we could start over, because this year–I promised–I was really trying to change. That’d get my readers right in the feels!

These days, when I think back on this memory of a memory–sitting in muddy pants in back of my middle school, despairing about some fresh act of bullying or related social exclusion that I may or may not have deserved; digging deep into a history of similar events with similarly mixed feelings of guilt and injustice–it’s the “perceived injustice” side of things that makes me the most squeamish. Last year, a young man in Isla Vista brutally murdered six people and injured thirteen others before killing himself, and I read his manifesto: the whole, danged, depressing screed in which he attributed his unhappiness to beautiful women not talking to him (and also the mega-lottery not picking him as its winner, after his father gave him The Secret and he took that book’s ridiculous claims to heart) before deciding to take revenge on men who had what he didn’t think they deserved, and on women who had no right to bodily autonomy if they wouldn’t sleep with him.

Obviously I’m not trying to suggest that I see a mass murderer in myself, but this killer’s attitude at 22 reminded me in part of my attitude at 11 to 12: the part that still felt the world “owed” me something better; the part that was so consumed by this sense of being “owed” that I sometimes failed to see how I could be doing more, in turn, to make my world a better place.

There was one person who was a good, kind friend to me in middle school, for instance, and it would take years for me to realize that I didn’t honour her friendship properly at the time. I was embarrassed to be seen around her if people from my class were around, because they liked to make fun of her–but whose loss was that, ultimately? She doubtless perceived the slight, but it didn’t stop her from pursuing her passions to the fullest in those same years; meanwhile, I wanted so much to be included in one group that I lost out on a great many opportunities to have a better middle-school experience with her, and others like her.

So it goes, of course. Childhood is a powerful learning process that (with any luck) starts to reap results before we kick the bucket. Nonetheless, memoir-writing consequently has this dangerous whiff of self-indulgence to it. Certainly, plenty of memoirists rise above the reactivity phase of so much self-pitying autobiography to a stage of more meaningful and broadly significant self-reflection, but suffice it to say, now that I’m an older writer, I realize just how much more honest I’d still need to be with (and about) myself before I could even begin to broach the more difficult matter of representing others in my life with the fairness they, in turn, deserve.

Writing Fiction, In Fact

Thankfully, none of the stories I’ve lately wanted to tell has clamoured for memoir as its form. Nonetheless, I’m still left dreading questions that seem to tether my writing to autobiography or otherwise suggest I write primarily from a therapeutic need. These questions first emerged when I shared general fiction with others, and when I started publishing poetry and pursing playwriting, but I suppose I was caught off-guard when it happened with sci-fi, too. Was no genre, no form safe from interrogating how my speakers/narrators were somehow echoes of my own, deep-seated issues?

As a doctoral candidate in English lit, I can safely tell you that the heyday for psychoanalysis is well behind us (pick up any lit-crit book from the 70s, though, and man, you’re in for a ride), but as I continue to grow in my writing, I know I have to get used to some people assuming, say, that a female protagonist estranged from her father is somehow a sign that I’m estranged from mine. And yet, if I shared what I really feel is going on in those scenes–that I’m trying to take on both subject-positions at once–I fear I’d only make matters worse.

On the other hand, those questions keep me conscious of redundancies in my writing. Thus far, I see two ways of looking at the presence of repetition over an artist’s work: Either the artist is refining a given theme through mindful variation (think Lynch or Cronenberg), or they’re just not that inspired to deviate from a shtick that works (think James Patterson). I’m still growing, so I don’t know which position best describes me yet, but being self-aware, I hope, will help incline me more toward the former.

Moreover, I am absolutely aware that each of my current works starts with a feeling, which I will concentrate on intently until a specific scenario emerges. This is how I wrote “A Gift in Time,” for instance: I started with the idea of futility, constructed a character who (for me at the time) best embodied that idea, and pushed the futility of their situation to (what I felt was) its natural breaking point. I had my own, personal brush with futility at the time, but absolutely none of that specific situation made it into the story–only the feeling, played out in a different scenario with entirely different characters.

In an ideal world, that’s as close as my writing would get to “autobiography”, but I’d be lying if I said that my general fiction didn’t suffer from its own, weird negotiation with that term. After all, I’m a voracious conversation-recorder: Anything I overhear or see on the bus or in the street is likely as not going to get jotted down, and characters from my neighbourhood or turns of phrase and striking situations among people closest to me all find themselves in a heap of potential material beside The Machine.

Granted, I’ve written many stories that don’t have any of these tidbits within them, but the ones that do sift overtly through such detritus leave me unsettled. Nothing of either sort’s been published yet, so I feel as though I still have time to decide how comfortable I am with work that reimagines and repurposes the everyday for completely fictive scenarios. Nonetheless, I’m torn between the sense that every single character in the literary fiction I write is in some way me (occupying each subject-position to the fullest and fairest that I possibly can), and the sense that, on the surface, all of my characters going to be read as other people–real people–because, say, the setting of a story might be my city, and because certain anecdotes might bear an uncanny resemblance to things I’ve actually seen and heard.

Back to the Point

So when Ulin states that “all writing is autobiographical” I can’t help but read the comment as pragmatically meaningless. Yes, we’re all subjectively engaged in our own lives; by necessity, that’s just how things are for corporeal beings. But I’d argue that a vital component of our growth–as human beings as much as artists–is precisely to what extent we are willing to push past a surface subjectivity that orients the world solely around what it’s done to us and how effectively it’s currently serving our needs.

In saying this, I suppose I should stress that reactivity is by no means irrelevant–especially if helplessness, perceived or otherwise, has been an integral component in our experiences–but an equally difficult and non-automatic position to occupy is that of trying to see the world (including your own experiences within it) from another point of view. This is something I know I strive for in my writing, and this is something I know absolutely shapes my preoccupation with certain themes and characters over others: How can I more fairly represent and understand that and those which I am most inclined, on a knee-jerk level, to regard most critically?

In my experience, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do (and which I continue to have to do, sometimes on a daily basis) is recognize that I have an inner truth about how certain situations played out, and perhaps who was most at fault within them, which I know that other human beings will never share. And yet, life goes on! Without resolution on so many such accords; without one absolute way of viewing the correctness of a situation rising to the top; without one “objective” truth trumping all.

My ultimate caveat in relation to this notion of “autobiography” is thus that, unless the author takes as their central work the attempt to raise him- or herself above an automatic subjectivity to a more measured and self-reflective subjectivity, the term is crudely and destructively applied. Conversely, though, if a given “autobiography” allows its readers greater insight into a wide range of subject positions, who could fairly contest its use to describe writing of most any given form?

First Short Story Sale of the Year!

Doctoral studies keep me from this blog more than I’d like; when I’m not working on the dissertation, I’m devouring books and films and current affairs discourse at an intense pace, but I never seem able to rally my thoughts for a full blog post. (Half-posts, written in an impassioned state about various social or knowledge-community issues, then abandoned to overwhelming fatigue? Absolutely.)

Nonetheless, my third sale to Analog Magazine warrants at least the briefest of update posts. I cannot adequately describe how *exciting* it remains to know that something I’ve written will be in a magazine I grew up reading and adoring. Editor-in-chief Trevor Quachri has also been an absolute joy to work with, and I know without a shadow of a doubt that I’m a better writer for our interactions.

I don’t know yet which issue of Analog will host “In the Mix”, the tale of a space DJ compelled to offer more than his usual brand of aid to a generation of humans stranded in orbit around an uninhabitable planet Earth. Nonetheless, I cannot wait to read the other stories in said issue, and (in the meantime) to use the momentum from this very happy circumstance to continue to improve.

May all your writing ventures in the new year be as kind–or kinder still!–to all of you.

By a Different Book Than I Have Known: Anderson Plays It Safe with Inherent Vice

It’s hard to talk about P. T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice without invoking its source material, Thomas Pynchon’s stoner noir, a wild, sex- and drugs-filled romp through a ’70s landscape filled with pointed caricatures of American excess. If I were being fair I’d say that the film cleaves tonally closer to Anderson’s last work, The Master (2012), and should be read in that light… but I’m not in the mood to be fair. I was underwhelmed.

Granted, there was nothing technically wrong about Joaquin Phoenix as Doc Sportello, P.I., a stoner whose ex-girlfriend takes him for the ride of his life by embroiling him in a mystery involving drug cartels, kidnapping, murder, covert government plots, the medical industrial complex, and real estate. Likewise, Doc’s counterpoint in “Bigfoot”, a mean old cop (Josh Brolin) occasionally on the same side of a given case, displays excellent chemistry. Nor is the girlfriend, Shasta (Katherine Waterson), a disappointment in her role; there’s one long, single take in particular where she plays the haunted, dreamy-eyed “lost girl” part to disaffected perfection.

But therein, really, lies the problem: For Anderson, it’s all disaffected, all emotionally numb. In the process, he excises a considerable amount of the joy and inanity from Pynchon’s novel.

Now, I wasn’t born in the ’70s, but I grew up with all the standard Hollywood ’70s narratives–the decade of disillusionment; the long, nationwide hangover; the ongoing war and love fatigue and the reassertion of commercial enterprise over any concepts that had borne even the semblance of counter-capitalism throughout the decade prior. And Pynchon by no means shies from any of this in his novel. One of his greatest observations therein even holds a shining place in Anderson’s adaptation: In the belly of a rehab facility in league with the drug distributors, our prophetic female narrator (Anderson’s aesthetic choice) observes, “Get them coming and going, twice as much revenue and no worries about new customers–as long as American life was something to be escaped from, the cartel would always be assured a bottomless pool of new customers.”

The trouble is, Anderson clings to this sentiment to the bitter end, a long take of a man and a woman in a car, just driving and carrying with them the weight of all that’s come before. Gone in the process is most of the zany, haphazard chaos of the whole adventure–the richness of Pynchon’s California backdrop, and all its nutjob occupants. Even Doc’s day-time office is just an office in this version; a place where he can squirrel up and huff nitrous oxide, instead of his own, complicit addition to a bizarre Californian milieu. The Black Panthers, Aryan Brotherhood, and FBI similarly merit mentions, but all action therein drops hard away from the film, streamlining the story to one “lost girl” come home to Doc and one “lost boy” Doc’s trying to reunite with his family. The soundtrack felt lost, itself, too.

Maybe Anderson really couldn’t have done this any other way, though; his work has always favoured the quiet and the broken and the gradual. And as much as I found myself toying with the idea, while watching, of what Terry Gilliam (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) might have done with the same source material, I still prefer a controlled director letting loose to a haphazard director asked to muster some measure of restraint. Similarly, while the Coen Brothers might also have been a better choice, they already found the right balance in The Big Lebowski–what do they stand to gain by essentially rehashing old ground?

Suffice it to say, though, that the heavy disillusionment Anderson foregrounds in this film has been done before; it’s a standard approach to ’70s Americana, and to see Anderson lean on it, knowing how much leverage he had through the source material, is to see Anderson essentially playing it safe. His version of Inherent Vice is a technically coherent, visually articulate use of 148 minutes, and a competent adaptation by any measure, but Pynchon’s source text offers so much more.

Well I’ll Be Darned: A Decent Hobbit Movie

If this even counts as a confession, I do confess: I was not looking forward to The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies. It wasn’t just that I found the first two films in Peter Jackson’s trilogy silly, either, although they certainly were that: from the jarring 36-frames-per-second shtick and blatant reconfiguring of Thorin Oakenshield as a copy of Aragorn in the first, to the poor pacing, heavy-handed Lord of the Rings tie-ins, and excessive use of CGI to orchestrate ridiculous fight and escape sequences in both.

No, my main issue was that I also found them so off-tone from the source material they seemed to run counter to Tolkien’s original story, of a picaresque anti-hero who stumbles into adventures where the use of violence is undermined as a first line of defence–where kennings and quick wits and a little bit of stealth and thievery are all that’s usually needed to save the day.

Heck, in the source material, Bilbo isn’t even awake for the battle that ensues after the dwarves reclaim their mountain, and since the narrative cleaves to its protagonist, the reader isn’t involved either. In its very conception, then, a movie dedicated to a fight Tolkien pointedly left outside the text seemed to speak to a very different audience. I loves me a violent film, but not so much the flattening of every story into generic combat narratives.

I was thus surprised to discover how much Jackson reins himself in this time, and makes war by no means a desired outcome for any but Thorin, who is at last depicted as a dwarf-proper, lost to dragon-sickness. Granted, Jackson still cannot resist a good hundreds-of-CGI-orcs-vs.-a-handful-of-dwarves battle sequence, or bending the laws of physics to let a tower fall into the shape of a sturdy bridge, or letting a cart amble down a narrow street with just enough clearance to spare a father from squashing his three children… but honestly? compared to how much bullshit we endure in the first two films–from an escape sequence in the most precarious underground city ever constructed, to the interminable barrel-rolling debacle, to every ridiculous survival manoeuvre inside Smaug’s treasure hall?… the third film’s few slips into similar wankery were actually tolerable.

Moreover, such cinematic excesses were offset this time by some fairly competent structural choices. The film not only boasts considerable variety in its extensive action sequences, but also tethers most to coherent military strategies and offers the audience ample means of distinguishing between the five armies (well, four, really–one latecomer’s a bit of a cheat) in the throes of combat. And though there’s the usual amount of lots-of-baddies-dying-far-too-easily, there are also combat sequences that illustrate how, say, using giants on the frontline of an advancing force can legitimately backfire.

Even Legolas’s extravagant trick of wresting bodily control from various beasts in the heat of battle serves as an unsettling reference to a character arc from the second film, which identifies him as having been a serious elf-supremacist in his younger years. Nor is he the only individual who stands out from a sea of CGI combatants: The humans of Laketown are given flavour amid the chaos through anecdotes involving the self-preservation antics of simpering Alfrid (Ryan Gage), and even if we don’t get the full complement of dwarves’ names repeated, they and the major orc villains maintain distinct visual presences despite all the extras running about.

Certainly, the mileage on other additions and modifications to the original story varies. On the weaker end, the central story of Bilbo’s adventure still cuts away too awkwardly to attend to Jackson’s LotR tie-in sequences, where we mostly get that Galadriel and Gandalf the Grey had a thing, there are a bunch of powerful rings in the world, dark forces are stirring, and no one’s had the decency to tell Radagast the Brown that he still has bird-scat in his hair. (These tie-ins also create a consistency problem when Gandalf and Bilbo address the ring near the end, but that’s almost par for the course where Jackson’s cross-trilogy referencing is concerned.)

However, Jackson’s decision to nudge Tolkien towards the 21st-century where female action is concerned works pretty well: Galadriel may be in need of rescue after saving Gandalf, but she still casts Sauron’s living shadow out to Mordor; Tauriel struggles in her fight sequences but still holds her own; and when all the “real” men of Laketown have gone off fighting, many of the women sequestered with the children take up arms as well. And above all else, there really isn’t room for complaint about any of this, either–not even among textual purists, because all these instances emerge as narrative asides, illustrating that, yes, they can certainly coexist with our central, masculine storyline without destroying it.

Put another way, there were honestly moments during this film when I wondered what Jackson might do with, say, The Peloponnesian War, simply because he does manage a coherent combat narrative here and shows considerable restraint compared to his previous Hobbit films. (And other moments, granted, when I hung my head for even entertaining the thought–but again, far fewer than I’d anticipated.) The Battle of Five Armies is no masterpiece, but neither is it such a gloss of bad CGI and otherwise sloppy visual storytelling, imbued with so many ludicrous survival moments that all sense of genuine mortal peril falls away, as the first two in the series.

I’m almost tempted to say this film gave me a twinge of nostalgia over Lord of the Rings, and a desire to watch it anew, but for now I’ll play it safe and say that, after finishing The Hobbit‘s cinematic trilogy, I’m inclined to pick up The Silmarillion again–hoping, of course, that Jackson will feel comfortable resting on his laurels after six Tolkienian films and, for better or for worse, leave even the thought of producing any further well enough alone.

Optimism at a Bad Year’s End

Perhaps it goes without saying that 2014 was a pretty awful year for a tremendous number of human beings. Boko Haram continues to kidnap, rape, enslave, and murder in northeastern Nigeria. As of December 22, the 2014 Ebola epidemic has claimed 7,500 lives and ravaged tens of thousands more, both through direct infection and communal devastation. The Israeli-Palestinian assaults this summer destroyed wide tracts of the Gaza strip, displacing hundreds of thousands of Gazans, killing over 2,000 Gazans and 70 Israelis, and leaving over 10,000 Gazans and hundreds of IDF soldiers and Israel citizens wounded. Mexico is still reeling from the Iguala mass kidnapping/murder incident, ISIS wreaks terror over Syria and Iraq (not least of all for religious and ethnic minorities), and closer to home, both the shooting death of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the near-death of yet another indigenous woman, Rinelle Harper, in Winnipeg, Ontario, opened deep wounds around the systemic dehumanization of already marginalized human beings.

I bear all these horrific events in mind when trying to write about a much smaller well of suffering: my own. It still feels wrong to talk about a personal store of pain that made death seem relentlessly preferable last January, when so very many people who so dearly wanted to live were robbed of that precious gift this past year. Nonetheless, my little well is indeed my own. I will never know another’s any better, and I still hold to the value of self-knowledge, as negotiated in the likes of Plato’s Philebus dialogue, as integral to improving as a writer, an educator, and an overall human being.

To this end, when I think back to last December, my heart aches at the memory of so much mounting distress, and the knowledge of how much worse things would become before I finally received the treatment I needed. I’d gone through a difficult year–financially, health-wise, community-wise, and emotionally–but I’d survived quite a bit, too, and somehow I thought the mere fact of past survival might be enough. It wasn’t, though. I was still living with the severe depression of bipolar II on my own, unmedicated, and January brought that situation to a breaking point: a level of fatigue, and despair, and detachment that even now I cannot fully articulate.

Suffice it to say, nothing helped, and nothing, I was convinced, ever would. I had everything packed and written and discarded that needed to be packed and written and discarded, and I was an active danger to myself every single night for weeks on end. Nonetheless, my reflective heartache today is of a markedly different character than what I felt a year ago–a fact I find fascinating in its own right: the powerful shielding that the healed body can put up against past traumas, once they’re overcome. Last January is in some ways like a terrible dream I can only now shudder to recall, and hope never to revisit in full–and I doubt my recall could be otherwise, so long as I am well.

That said, I still have some terrible one-year anniversaries to mark in the coming weeks, my birthday among them. I will approach these cautiously, I expect, because a major part of surmounting an illness is grappling with feelings of anger and grief over how much time and potential were lost to it in the first place. However, the anniversaries that follow are much happier: The end of three months in an intense outpatient program that strove for hospitalization-equivalency. The end of three further months in day-hospital programming. And even today is filled with gladness: a Christmas spent alone but not the slightest bit afraid of being alone with myself.

Certainly, I accomplished other things this past year: I saw three short stories published (“A Gift in Time” in Clarkesworld, “Game of Primes” in GigaNotoSaurus, “The Last Lawsuit” in Bastion), and I completed the last of my candidacy exams, marking me as a doctoral candidate (or “ABD”–“all but dissertation”). But hands down, my most important achievement has been at long last reaching a place where I feel safe around myself, and confident in my ability to manage an illness that has taken… far, far, far too much from me over the previous decade. This is the achievement from which I can now, so dearly hope that more will follow.

For one, in becoming better able to manage bipolar disorder, I’ve necessarily become a better mental health advocate in general. This has already been a boon to my work in academia, where rates of anxiety, depression, and related mental health crisis have shot up among undergrads, right through to junior/contract teaching staff. Allies in self-advocacy are critical in breaking mental health stigma and promoting wellness for all, so for all that the “journey” has cost me, I feel fortunate to know exactly where to turn, and how to assist, when a colleague or student needs similar help.

For another, by virtue of being able to control my symptoms, self-sabotaging activities have dropped clean away. As such, I’ve had far less difficulty investing in the future. Words simply cannot describe how strange it is to love life dearly on one end of the bipolar cycle, but at the same time know–always, in everything–that this love of life will disappear at the other end of that cycle. It’s a life spent on tenterhooks, always afraid that the next down-cycle will be the one you do not survive. The side of us that rears its ugly head when we’re depressed is not the sum total of who we are–not by a long shot–but it wields a terrible power over any person in crisis: It holds the rest of our dreams, talents, and affections hostage in the worst possible way.

Speaking of hostages, one of the most frustrating for me, especially these last two years, has been my writing. More than anything, I’m hoping to see improvements in this domain from here on out, because I know my progress has suffered from an inability to manage my illness. I’m not simply talking, either, about how little I wrote this year; that paucity of output was almost guaranteed by January’s relentless crisis mode and then the long period of recovery, including the first medication I was placed on, heavy as horse tranquilizers, which left my brain clouded for long stretches of the day (but allowed me to sleep! allowed me to cut short long nights of self-harm!).

Rather, I’m talking about the way depression shrunk my tonal range and made it impossible to enjoy literary work at all. What stories I wrote this year, I wrote about all the pain in the world–the struggle and the futility of bearing witness. I wrote about despair, I wrote about isolation, and I wrote about never, ever, ever being well again. And hey, I got a couple such stories published–but the greater majority did not make the cut, and I’m not surprised. The aforementioned concepts are all critical themes in fiction, but they never exist in isolation, and the writer who cannot demonstrate a more comprehensive understanding of humanity (even if ultimately settling on the more negative side therein) does not deserve a larger audience.

I readily concede, then, that I haven’t been writing my best while deeply depressed, or otherwise struggling to manage bipolar. (So much for classic writer stereotypes! At least I still have my love of drink!) But I am excited to see what happens next–now that I’ve borne witness to so very many different slices of humanity in the course of my treatment plan; now that I’m on a medication that stabilizes the worst of my cycling without leaving me nearly catatonic; and now that 2014, nasty old year that it was, is nearly at an end.

What else is there to say? Only this, for now: However deep your own wells of suffering in 2014, dear readers, I wish you all great fortitude, and great kindness with yourselves, when surmounting them in the coming year.

Season’s greetings until then.

Ecce Corda Illorum: K. D. Miller’s Deeply Human Stories of Faith

I’ve read K.D. Miller’s All Saints twice this year–a queer thing for a doctoral candidate to do, laden with all-too-many other books to read. Nonetheless, this little collection of linked stories out of Biblioasis (a small press with a knack for publishing the choicest bits of fiction, poetry, and memoir) stayed with me for months after my first reading, and called me back in recent days.

Honestly, I hadn’t expected the lives of parishioners in a struggling Anglican community to spark as much interest in me as they did, but it doesn’t take long for a good work about the inner worlds of religious folk to strike the right humanist chord. (And when I say “good work”, I think of the likes of Flannery O’Connor–writers who will not sidestep the complexities of life.) It is one, very important thing to condemn the treatment of ancient, flawed texts and human beings as inviolably sacred; it is another entirely to deny the very real confusion, isolation, and smallness that marks the experience of being human, and so leads many people to the vocabularies of faith.

To this end, the characters in All Saints are human beings first and foremost, and as such most of their stories wend far afield of church life, exploring instead a range of inner quests to explain the abundance of so much fear, and pain, and mediocrity. In one story, a character who has calmly gone along with many instances of humiliation reaches his breaking point after becoming lost in the woods, then discovering his presence wasn’t even missed at the retreat. In another, the decades-long trajectory of an imperfect relationship–through lousy housing, poverty, and infidelity–illustrates how loving in an unfulfilling manner is sometimes crushingly inescapable.

When Anglican rites and feelings do present themselves in the text, their inclusion is thus always with an eye to contrasts and uncertainties. In one story, a character struggles during the Ash Wednesday service with news of a polyp found in her cervix–the very word, polyp, as enigmatic as phrases in the day’s sermon; the two concepts in rigorous tension throughout. In another, the Reverend Simon inadvertently makes of a woman’s forgotten sweater his confessor, negotiating memories of life with his late wife, a woman whose bipolar disorder (as I interpret the Ruth Ascended / Ruth Descended descriptions) plunged her into depths where his faith could not follow.

But it’s the first story in this collection–a story we are later allowed to imagine was fabricated by another character–that perhaps lingers most. It’s such a damned simple piece: a man on the cusp of his 60th wedding anniversary, puttering about in an unfinished basement with designs to turn it into a guest room, gradually realizing that his old war buddy, whom he hasn’t seen since, was the closest soul he’d ever known. And yet the story is perfectly, achingly told in second-person, drawing its reader into wars both past and present, external and internal, as in the following passage:

Not that you and Barney didn’t talk. Probably talked more to Barney than you’ve ever talked to anybody. In your life. Those weeks before you got sent over. And then once you were in the thick of it. When every word might be your last, so you made it a good one.

It wasn’t just noise, though. Just talk to fill the nothing. The words–if you added up the words, they wouldn’t come to much. Not yours, anyway. But Barney? He could ask you a question–You ever get up real early, Garth, and see a lake like glass before the first wind’s ruffled it, and the reflection of the far trees so perfect you don’t know which is water and which is sky, and it makes you wonder if you’ve been upside down all your life? If things were quiet, it would sound like the damnedest fool question you’d ever heard. But then all the hell would start up. And at the end of it, when you were just getting used to not being dead, you’d find that question still in your mind, and it would be the only thing in the whole universe that made any sense. So you’d say, Yeah. I’ve seen that. Once or twice. And Barney would smile like he’d known all along you had, like that question was the one he’d been saving up just for you.

The rest of All Saints revisits this idea–that there are people in our past with whom we were more complete than we are now; that life grows heavy with such hauntings, no matter how we might struggle to resolve them.

I remember in my undergraduate years, when I lived in a dorm populated by a lot of credulous, deeply Evangelical believers, speaking with one woman who’d been troubled after high school by the realization that most of the friends she’d made, she’d never see again after she finished her degree. What cruelty is this, she wondered, that we have the capacity to grow so close to more people than we can ever hope to stand by in our lives?

She then told me she’d gone to her minister with this anxiety, and her expression lit up as she explained to me his answer: “That’s what Heaven is for,” he’d told her. “It’s a place where all of your closest relationships, and millions more, can be maintained for all eternity.” And she believed him wholeheartedly, and her anxiety passed, and with confidence she said she was ready to strike out in the world, forging new friendships she could expect to perfect much later on, beyond the pearly gates.

Her simple faith was almost enviable in this matter, because I resonated deeply with her underlying grief. There are, of course, secular responses to such a sad reality, and Anne Druyan, Carl Sagan’s wife, stands out especially for her comments after her husband’s death:

When my husband died, because he was so famous & known for not being a believer, many people would come up to me — it still sometimes happens — & ask me if Carl changed at the end & converted to a belief in an afterlife. They also frequently ask me if I think I will see him again. Carl faced his death with unflagging courage & never sought refuge in illusions. The tragedy was that we knew we would never see each other again. I don’t ever expect to be reunited with Carl. But, the great thing is that when we were together, for nearly twenty years, we lived with a vivid appreciation of how brief & precious life is. We never trivialized the meaning of death by pretending it was anything other than a final parting. Every single moment that we were alive & we were together was miraculous — not miraculous in the sense of inexplicable or supernatural. We knew we were beneficiaries of chance… That pure chance could be so generous & so kind… That we could find each other, as Carl wrote so beautifully in Cosmos, you know, in the vastness of space & the immensity of time… That we could be together for twenty years. That is something which sustains me & it’s much more meaningful…

The way he treated me & the way I treated him, the way we took care of each other & our family, while he lived. That is so much more important than the idea I will see him someday. I don’t think I’ll ever see Carl again. But I saw him. We saw each other. We found each other in the cosmos, and that was wonderful.“

Nonetheless, this is a comment about a married couple that “succeeded” (in that death alone parted them) and life is filled with myriad, far more transient encounters. Suffice it to say, then, that there are no neat and tidy solutions for all that befalls us, all that we lose in the way of people and cherished ties and opportunities to make amends for past trespass. We can talk of “letting go” but that act is invariably imperfect–at least, if we have any feeling in us. Our ghosts will always find their haunts.

This is perhaps why All Saints struck home the way it did with me, and will not give me peace; Miller navigates such losses and fears and quiet devastations with a compassion for her subjects that surmounts the text’s religious vocabulary. The people she’s created here, linked in their fragile ways, are no more than babes in a confounding universe– and I feel kindred to them all.

Poor Players Taking Flight: The Sad, Strange Artistry of Iñárritu’s Birdman

Birdman (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)
Alejandro González Iñárritu
New Regency

Meditations on failure–especially failure as it relates to the pursuit of greatness–call to me like the bat signal to Bruce Wayne. JCVD, The Wrestler, Crazy Heart–heck, even the recent Netflix series, Bojack Horseman–all have at their core a gratifying honesty about our capacity to grieve and regret personal failings without ever really surmounting them.

Birdman, though, is all this and more. Certainly, promotional material just gives us the story of Riggan (Michael Keaton), a washed-up actor trying to emerge from the long shadow of his blockbuster career as the superhero “Birdman” by writing, directing, and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. However, in practice Birdman reflects on the failings of a number of characters–including us, the audience not just of this film but of film and theatre in general.

This indictment of the audience is deftly achieved with camerawork that wends us through the labyrinthine underbelly of Riggan’s Broadway theatre–bystanders in one character arc; seemingly active participants in the opening of the next–but it remains a risky thematic move on director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s part. Then again, a film about the craft and consequences of performance is necessarily risky, and by taking more such risks, Birdman avoids becoming too self-conscious on this accord, escaping instead into the company of experimental films like Synecdoche, New York (2008), Holy Motors (2012), and even Brazil (1985).

Moreover, that Terry-Gilliam-esque feel is not limited to a dizzying claustrophobia or the shadowy, peripheral emergence of short people and reindeer (the latter bizarrely part of the Carver stage adaptation); rather, from the outset we’re also given to believe that Riggan might genuinely have superpowers. To this end, the voice of Birdman dogs him relentlessly, undercutting any joy and artistic reconstitution he had hoped to find in this theatre project, and goading him into actions both heavily foreshadowed and pointedly ambiguous. Indeed, a good question to ask of this film, as with Brazil, is where on earth the realism ends. (I count at least three places in Birdman where surrealism might have conquered all.)

Again, though, the film as a whole never rests on just one target. For the first half, this means heaving and lurching between Riggan’s inner turmoil and the opposing disingenuousness of Broadway legend Mike Shiner (Ed Norton), but as the film progresses, it also takes swipes at the movie industry and the cowardice of critics upon whom careers are made or broken. At times the film also seems to recapitulate some of Carver’s short stories, playing out truly jarring side-material between Mike and girlfriend/co-cast-member Lesley (Naomi Watts), then Lesley and co-cast-member Clara (Natalie Gold), but these aesthetics soon give way to the usual tricks of big blockbusters and magical realism (Borges’ Labyrinths even gets a cameo in a sun-tanning bed). The soundtrack similarly swings between the kind of pit band one might expect with live theatre, to more conventional, orchestral scores, to arias marking a weakening grasp on reality in Riggan’s inner world.

As the film’s own performances go, one character consciously exemplifies bad acting, and in so doing establishes a theme of “going to extremes” that the rest of the film rigorously builds upon. Against this contrast, Keaton and Norton have an easy time illustrating good acting, while Zach Galifianakis, in a marginal role as producer/lawyer/inexplicably-sidelined-best-friend, shows a capacity for something other than deadpan and slapstick comedy. But the standout performance is clearly Emma Stone as Riggan’s daughter, Sam: Somehow her precariously large, watery eyes in no way soften the wallop of a scathing attack on her father’s sense of worth–a tirade she makes up for just a couple beats later, with one perfectly understated word.

Not surprisingly, Shakespeare also finds a way into this production about productions, with someone on the streets of Broadway belting Macbeth’s “sound and fury” number with all the agony of Ginsberg’s Howl; and to hear that former text meted out piecemeal at the height of our protagonist’s despair, the implication that all this has happened before and will happen again becomes inescapable. Rarely have I ever so longed to and dreaded returning to a film I’ve just viewed, but Iñárritu’s Birdman is a wild, slippery, and deeply unsettling lament–not just for the folly of individual aspirations to greatness, but also, more fundamentally, for our failure to know what it is we ever really we talk about, when we talk about greatness at all.

“A Progress Accompanied By Constant Violence”: Gibson’s Grey New World

The Peripheral
William Gibson

I was seventeen when I read Pattern Recognition, a solid run of classic scifi already behind me. Cayce Pollard, her world, showed me what science fiction could really do. What it was meant for, maybe. William Gibson, father of cyberpunk, didn’t need to create much in the way of new technology for this post-9/11 effort; he just showed us how the present world, with all its current conceits and power dynamics and technologies, could already be exploited in other, deeply significant ways. Science fiction of the present, in other words–but then, all science fiction is really about the present. It’s just the rare writer who can present this fact so blatantly, and so well.

I felt that same, breathless excitement when I started the The Peripheral–Gibson’s prose here every bit as precise as that of Pattern Recognition. Since the story is also dense with detail and narrated through the limited omniscience of two protagonists, operating in different temporal regions, this precision could easily have been the book’s downfall. (I, certainly, was afraid that if I put it down I’d have trouble picking it up again.) But Gibson seems wise to this danger: Granted, his sentences run short, and information is parcelled out in equally clipped bites, but he keeps his actual chapters brief as well–most written in a punchy style that holds our two protagonists close in the reader’s mind, even if their worlds are not.

Stylistically, then, The Peripheral is pure mystery-thriller, and much of the content leans this way, too: Flynne Fisher is stuck in a near-future American wasteland of passed-over war veterans, impossible healthcare costs, illicit drug manufacture as the only stable job source, and big businesses so big that their financial attributes seem to bleed into other dimensions. Meanwhile, Wilf Netherton, in a far-flung, post-global-fallout London, is a carelessly amorous publicist in a world rich in scientific advances (if low on people), where messing with alternate timelines is a luxury hobby with huge benefits for offshoring crime. When Flynne beta-tests what she thinks is a video game and sees something she’s not supposed to, she becomes the target of a future/alternate-continuum hit–and a critical part of Wilf’s own attempts, in conjunction with business associates, to track down a murderer.

However, all the mechanics of a mystery-thriller are subordinated in this text to richly speculative slice-of-life details: details that become especially uncanny because of their resonance with much in our present-day world. Although this book does offer the excitement of murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, and a final showdown, the long lead-up and surrounding implications of modern technology preoccupy far too much of the text for The Peripheral to be read as murder-mystery alone.

To this end, the first third of the book follows the dawning realization that these timeframes we’re alternating between, chapter-by-chapter, are aligned with different realities. This realization is interwoven with observations (teased out of everyday conversations around Flynne’s home) about all manner of current affairs, including drone warfare, combat-oriented video games, prosthetics technology, mass-produced lab-grown meat, weaponry upgrades, the various uses and abuses of 3D-printing, shifting global economies, the questionable priorities of national and local security, and emerging medical conditions.

But the real crux of novel, and the source of its title, comes from a technology in that far-flung, “post-jackpot” future: “the peripheral”, an anthropomorphic body that runs off its own, limited AI until inhabited and operated by a human being through direct mental link-up. Yet even this far-future technology is not so great a leap from current technologies–like lab testing that’s allowed one human being to control the movements of another through thought alone, or the ever-expanding possibilities of gaming in general. In classic Gibson style, then, while action and intrigue unfolds throughout the text, the peripheral, as a concept, is explored at equally great length and detail, especially as Wilf prepares for Flynne to become present in his timeline and moment through this very technology.

Even the ending of Gibson’s text is far more a comment on the current state of our financial system, with all its alarming technological self-sufficiencies, than any neat-and-tidy wrap-up of a murder mystery. What matters less is that a case is solved (almost a given for the crime genre) than the means by which lives are rebuilt in the case’s aftermath. Is any of it sustainable? Are the beds these characters lie in worth a damn in the long run?

Earlier this year, I read Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, which–despite also addressing the fundamental uncertainty of technology and what technology brings out in us (as positioned around the bottoming out of cultural meaning wrought by 9/11)–left me underwhelmed. Likewise, David Cronenberg’s Consumed negotiates our physical relationships with modern technology in a number of haunting ways, but I was not satisfied with its attempt to tie this strangeness to broader, world-order narratives.

I couldn’t quite put my finger on the reasons for my disappointment with both these volumes, though, until finishing Gibson’s latest. And yes, this ending is deflating, too: The seamless integration of a few characters into systems we know full well are destructive offers little hope of more meaningful change. But everything about the way Gibson’s shown us this world–the class divide presented from the outset; the meticulous object fetishism engaged with throughout; the high priority placed on sparing, but ultimately human dialogue–invites the reader to reflect more fully on the characters for whom change is still possible.

Without openly saying it, then, or even providing a coherent alternative to certain collision courses our technology might place us on, The Peripheral is without a doubt a call to arms. There is an old adage: Wherever you go, you are. In Gibson’s world, this is no less true, it seems, no matter how extraordinary and far-off our destinations. So who are we, anyway, and what might we become when we arrive?

Classy as All Get-Out

John Wick
David Leitch & Chad Stahelski
87Eleven (and others)

Calling a film “slick” has terrible connotations, suggesting not just an exceptional level of cinematic polish but also a structural gloss that offers the viewer no emotional way into the story. I’ll say instead, then, that the action-thriller John Wick is smooth–smooth like those two fingers of Johnny Walker Black you’re taking neat because you’re a decent human being; smooth like the feel of a high-thread-count silk shirt on bare skin; smooth like the leisurely stride of a body with nothing to prove across a nightclub floor. Even Keanu Reeves’ weakness with dialogue in no way detracts from the sleek, stylish underworld his character (our protagonist) must re-enter in order to seek revenge; the whole movie thrums with class.

Amid all this aesthetic appeal, of course, is a plot: John Wick is grieving for his wife when her parting gift arrives, but he only gets a day with this new puppy and lifeline before the punk-ass son of a Russian mobster decides to steal John’s car and murder John’s last living connection to his wife in the process. However, Iosef (Alfie Allen) is soon set straight by his father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), about just how big a mistake that carjacking was: John, we discover, was called the Boogeyman when he worked for Viggo because he was the guy you sent to kill the Boogeyman. Yikes. Viggo thus tries to pre-empt the vengeance plot he knows John will be planning, and the race is quickly on between one man with nothing to lose and… well, the entire Russian mob, it seems, in an effort to protect one loser son.

Indeed, Iosef is visually out-of-step in this film–a diminutive character who talks a big talk from the safety of his entourage, does what he wants, and can only scamper, rodent-like, when a crisis emerges. It is likely no surprise that the only sexploitation we see in this film (scantily-clad waitresses working pool-level at the nightclub where he and his homies are idly drinking while John is on the way) relates to his utter disregard for the consequences of his actions; he and his ilk are clearly cast as the entitled me-generation ruining an otherwise great thing the real menfolk had going.

All around him, to that end, are the endearing constructs of an “old guard”: immaculate, elaborate homes built on the wealth of mob business; a private currency used to access secret services and clubs; a hotel with strict rules about mob business being off-limits therein; and a host of characters who respond to all manner of extremely violent episodes with the sort of neighbourly conversation one might expect when taking out the trash. In conjunction with the playful, comic-book construction of subtitles for all Russian dialogue, these wry, wink-and-a-nudge asides give the whole universe of this film a touch of nostalgia for the good ol’ days.

And the people who operate in this old world are, of course, professionals: John Wick makes every shot, despite the training of his would-be assassins, but the film is also replete with dynamic action sequences that necessitate reload after reload while fighting at close quarters, and negotiates the problems that reality incurs with similar aesthetic grace. John is also equally skilled in gunfighting, knife-fights, jiu jitsu, and (shall we say?) vehicular manslaughter with extreme prejudice–all of which, in conjunction with a tight soundtrack, keep the pace lively and the fight scenes diverse.

This is not to say there aren’t moments of dubious deus ex machina, especially when John gets into scrapes needed to further the plot or set up a change in location, but on the whole, the film stays on point: no silly side-plots with new flings (no female assassins used as sex objects at all, even!); conversation at a strict minimum; and the fight scenes aerobatic, intense, and brutal without ever dipping too far into absurdity. As action thrillers go, John Wick is thus a powerful reminder that a) masculinity need not be defined in relentless contrast to the female form; b) attention to detail supplants the need for a lot in the way of special effects; and c) goddamn, when are theatres going to allow me to drink scotch openly while watching movies that could’ve been lifted from the pages of GQ or Forbes magazine?

There is simply no justice in the world.